Digital advocacy is the art and science of building grassroots movements for causes, ideas, and products online. While its roots and frequent application are political in nature, creating advocates is top of mind for consumer brands, associations, and anyone keen to build a movement of support. The practice has never been as interesting and effective, and some might say rocky.
Consider our landscape:
Motivated reasoning—the earnest search to reinforce what we already believe, while ignoring anything that contradicts our views—has become part of our cultural lexicon. A September 2019 study found that “politically-driven motivated reasoning on […] immigration, upward mobility, racial discrimination, crime […] climate change, gun laws […] leads people to become more polarized, less accurate, and overconfident in their beliefs.” Mary Meeker’s biblical Internet Trends 2019 report reinforced this disturbing trend, citing scholars who found that people flock to negative news about everything they hold dear, and that groups only harden their beliefs over time. Unless you live under a rock (and you probably don’t, because if you are between 18 and 29 you spend 40% of your waking life on the Internet), you will recognize issues like these as some of the most important shaping our politics and societies. Brands take sides as much as politicos to gain market and mind share. Communications strategists know that people take action for instinctive, emotional reasons: Will the government take my gun away? Will my retirement be jeopardized by that decision? Why should my kid have to go to that crappy school?
Paraphrasing Faris Jacob, we are having the most critical political and public policy conversations of our day on the most potent marketing machine ever conceived. And most of us think it works and that digital advocacy activity is “important for getting elected officials to pay attention to issues or for initiating sustained social movements.” Highly motivated individuals surrounding themselves with their supporters happens more often, with greater ease, and in more numbers than ever before. It’s almost hard not to build a movement under these conditions, if you get the message right and can stand out.
Part of what makes advocacy so interesting in 2019 is our ever-changing tactical toolbox. We are cutting landlines and tapping the Internet for every channel we will ever need. Traditional media outlets are copying the style of Instagram and Snapchat, and editing images as part of telling a story to your friend has become as commonplace as toasters. We can deep fake each other into Orwellian fear, and we can spin up our own Slack channel for free and collaborate in our own private bubbles faster than you can stake a lawn sign.
All this might sound great or dark depending on your perspective, but it adds up to a landscape that is as fertile for building movements as it is daunting. If you want to plant a flag and find people to follow you, you can. How?
Start at the beginning; start with the right story and audience
- Who are you trying to reach?
- What do you want them to do?
- Why should they care?
If you can’t articulate the answers to these questions, you’re lost.
Ask the “top 100” question: Are there 100 people in the world today who would act for this cause with no convincing? What do they need to act? What will inspire and move them from thought to action?
Create your path to advocacy
How will you move your target advocates from ignorance to awareness, awareness to interest, interest to advocacy? You might be happy speaking only to the converted, asking people to take action on something they are hungry to do already. This is fine, but be deliberate about it and don’t expect the parade if you are only talking to ten people. But can they instigate the parade? Map your advocates by influence, impact, and eagerness to act.
Know that advocacy is more than emailing officeholders
Writing a letter to a politician is timeless, and can be useful, but advocacy can be so much more. Your toolkit can surprise and delight, integrate across online and offline, and convey a great story that will inspire and provoke your potential army. What do your top 100 supporters need to support you? What do they wish they could do for the cause but can’t? This is a service you can provide—whether it’s a t-shirt, a poster, a phone call, or a pint glass.
Know that advocacy is as much about the data as it is the action.
Advocacy campaigns that start, hit it out of the park, and stop when they win or lose make me sad. This is a trove of data that your average marketer is dying to find: Who took the time to take an action when you asked them to? Who took more than one action? This is gold, and is as valuable as the action itself. Don’t let advocacy data go stale. You might lose numbers, but keeping your supporters engaged sets you up for the next opportunity.
Make things you own
You don’t technically own your Facebook newsfeed, your Twitter stream, or your Instagram scroll (this is debatable, but you don’t own how this content is pushed out and certainly don’t own the platform). It is rented land subject to the whims of landlords and their shareholder masters. It’s best to look at how you communicate, period, as channels you own and channels you don’t own. Build on what you own, cultivate your champions on that land and earn their continued attention. This means websites you control. This might mean podcasts.
This means a content strategy both on what you rent and on what you own—video, content, imagery. This means marrying offline with online (what isn’t online?). This means newsletters that are personal, direct, and interesting (email won’t die). It’s hard work, but it will pay off with the best return rate (the average email open rate of hot-button advocacy campaigns we have run in recent years is 50% or higher; this will beat social conversion ROI most days).
You’d have the same philosophy in a game of Monopoly.
Use paid to find people
Because you have to and that’s how the web is working today. If you don’t have anything worthy of organic growth, paid won’t help you much, but it’s an essential piece to gain traction online. The micro-laser-target surgery that paid gives us on Facebook and other platforms might have turned many off in the past two years, but you’d never know it by their stock price or usage rates. If you need more people than those who are already in the tent and talking to you, then you have to pay to find them.
Don’t let technology be your excuse—it’s never been a better market for the tools to build movements
The marketplace for killer digital advocacy tools gets more fun every year. There are national and international focused products that help people recruit, engage, and mobilize advocates, and you can mash them together in programs that incorporate mass email, great social, CRM (or CRM-like) systems, and action. It’s evolving, and if you last thought about digital advocacy when you ran that great campaign in 2016, it’s time to think again.
NATIONAL creates digital advocacy campaigns that spur change for ideas, products, and causes. Kevin McCann is speaking at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce AGM on September 23 about association advocacy trends and opportunities. He’s worked in digital advocacy since 2001, and spoken and written about in many places, most recently here, here, here and here.